Mass Incarceration

Mass Incarceration and Climate Change Are Not Separate Issues

By Emilce Quiroz on December, 2 2021

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Emilce Quiroz

Emilce Quiroz is our Senior Design Manager and a multimedia storyteller with a master’s degree in Spanish and Documentary journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Design at The New School. She brings her skills and passion to Common Justice where she focuses on shifting the narrative around violence through visual storytelling.

If we don’t dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mass incarceration, Black and Brown communities in the U.S.and internationally will pay the price.

One of the most concerning issues of our time is, without a doubt, climate change. The effects of climate change that were predicted to happen sometime in the future have already taken place in the present day. The ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and every year we break a new heat record. And yet, we continue to live our daily lives as though we will never face the consequences when the consequences are already happening. Around the same time that climate change began to call public attention, mass incarceration hit a record high in this country. Like climate change, mass incarceration is still an issue that we can’t seem to solve. We have created a culture of disposability. Our clothes have become disposable, our furniture, our cars, our phones are all meant to last us only a few years before they end up in a landfill where they will take tens if not hundreds of years to break down, if ever. This culture of disposability has become so prevalent that we have grown accustomed to seeing one another as disposable. We throw people away. We lock them up behind bars for years without thinking about the consequences of our actions. Mass incarceration and climate change are not separate issues. They are the byproducts of the same systems and it’s time that we draw up real, tangible solutions before falling into a deeper state of eco-apartheid.

Just recently, world leaders met in Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference to discuss how we can reduce greenhouse gasses and manage the ever-climbing temperatures that threaten our planet. Much like our nation’s ambivalence about drawing up any useful solutions to the issue of mass incarceration, COP26 drew up a solution that may not lead to any effective change at all. This ambivalence from world leaders protects corporations and leaves those most vulnerable to bear the brunt of climate change. In this way, the intersection of mass incarceration and climate change cannot be stressed enough. If we don’t dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mass incarceration, Black and Brown communities in the U.S.and internationally will pay the price.

Black and Brown people and people who live below the poverty line have always been the most impacted by the criminal legal system. According to a 2018 report by The Sentencing Project, Black people are more likely to get arrested, more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, are more likely to receive a lengthier sentence than white people for the same crime. One need only to watch the recent unfoldings in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial to see the sharp disparities between how white men are treated by the criminal legal system vs how people of color are treated. Once sentenced, our nation’s massive incarcerated population is exposed to the worst effects of climate change. Rising temperatures in our jails and prisons have increasingly become a death sentence for folks behind bars. According to data collected by the National Weather Service, heat has been the leading cause of weather-related deaths in our country over the past 30 years. Our nation's over-crowded prisons and jails make even the healthiest of our incarcerated population susceptible to heat-related death.

In 2011, 10 people died while incarcerated in Texas’s prison system from heat related causes. 70% of the nearly 100 prisons that operate in Texas, where temperatures can get to over 100 degrees fahrenheit in the summer, do not have any air conditioning and it will take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars before they do. In New York City’s Rikers Island, the summer’s grow more and more dangerous every year. Rikers Island has been under crisis for several years due to its crumbling infrastructure and the global pandemic has only made matters worse. In the summer of 2020, 89% of all complaints made to the Department of Corrections from incarcerated folks at Rikers Island were heat-related grievances. In 2014, a homeless veteran jailed at Rikers died of hyperthermia when his cell had reached over 100 degrees. He was essentially “baked to death.

But it isn’t just the rise in global temperature that puts our swollen incarcerated population at risk. According to a report by Earth Island Journal and Truthout, nearly 600 federal prisons are located within 3 miles of a superfund cleanup site. One hundred and thirty four of those prisons are located within just one mile. A superfund site is an abandoned hazardous waste site that contains toxic pollutants that are known to have negative health effects on the people that live nearby. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, living or working near a superfund site has been linked to infant mortality, mental illness, water and food-borne illness, and cancer.

One prison that resides next to a superfund site is State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette, a maximum-security prison in La Belle, Pennsylvania. The health complaints coming out of that prison led to a 12-month investigation which led to an in-depth report published in 2014, called No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Facility Fayette. According to the report, over 81% of the incarcerated population at Fayette reported having respiratory issues such as shortness of breath and/or tumors in the nose, mouth, and throat. Nearly 70% of them reported serious gastrointestinal issues. Another 52% reported severe skin reactions and 12% had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. For most of the people incarcerated at Fayette Prison, the symptoms did not begin until after their incarceration.

That’s just one prison of the hundreds of prisons across the country that are located near superfund sites. These toxic waste sites are the byproduct of our mass consumption and capitalist society. Once the land has been completely stripped of life and polluted to the point of being uninhabitable, the only way to continue making profit off of that land is by building a prison. The people who reside in these prisons are overwhelmingly poor, Black, or Brown people while those who can afford to post bail, get a good attorney, or simply convince a jury that they were acting out of self-defense will live in their air-conditioned homes away from the toxic waste sites -away from the carceral system.

These two issues are not impossible to solve. They exist because we allow them to exist. At Common Justice, we believe that the solution to both of these problems begins with listening to those most impacted. Our restorative-based approach allows us to disrupt violence in our communities and foster healing for survivors that want answers, accountability, and real repair. The current criminal legal system feigns to honor survivors while throwing those responsible for harm away -away from their communities and away from taking accountability for the harm they’ve caused. Restorative Justice works because it recognizes the inherent value of every person and doesn’t see anyone as disposable. If we applied restorative justice practices in cases of ecological harm and forced ourselves to take accountability to the indigenous communities that have been most impacted by our actions, we could resolve climate change and cool the Earth’s temperature enough to avoid total disaster. But real accountability is hard and it takes a lot of work. It’s not as simple as throwing things away. We can resolve climate change and mass incarceration. We just have to want to.

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